Before there was Tumblr, there was ‘Tom of Finland’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Executive Editor
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For about a decade, we have been in a golden age of gay cinema. It’s been a long time coming. There was underground gay cinema in the 1960s and ’70s from the likes of Andy Warhol and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — dark, sexual, low-budget usually, but there. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, we went kinda-sorta mainstream with quasi-chaste romantic comedies — lots of butts, lots of frankness, little depth: Another Gay Movie, But I’m a Cheerleader, He’s All Over You, countless more. That’s also around the time we started getting gay drama inescapably tied to HIV/AIDS: Longtime Companion, Philadelphia.  

Then Brokeback Mountain changed the game. It was gay but authentic and touching. It won awards. It got straight viewers to see gay people in a new light. That was followed by The Kids Are All Right and Milk and The Danish Girl and Moonlight. Finally we had a cinematic voice.

But that voice still had the patina of heterespectability — stories about gay parenting, or civil rights, or the challenges of being trans or a queer of color. There was still a niche to fill, and it needed to look back to do so: Serious movies about that same underground world that Fassbinder explored. Gay cinema that doesn’t have to be cheesy, but undeniably queer. It was time for retro.

One of the first to do that was last year’s King Cobra, about murder and drug use among the gay porn industry, which captured the seediness of the subject without wallowing or playing it safe.

Tom (Pekka Strang) shows off some of his drawings in the frank and compelling ‘Tom of Finland.’

Now comes Tom of Finland. I’m almost amazed that it’s getting any theatrical release it a universe of VOD and streaming services; it feels more festival than festive (a holiday release, no less! “Honey, should we watch a movie about Charles Dickens or the gay leather scene?”)

If you don’t already know who Tom of Finland was, you should; he all but invented gay identity. I’m not really joking. All those types from the Village People started at the tip of his pencil. He drew hyper-idealized versions of masculinity: Rippling muscles, enormous genitals, moustachioed bikers having guilt-free anonymous sex. Tom was just drawing his own fantasies — fan fiction of a kind — but his underground cartoons caught on in a world before the internet, with cheap copies circulated in New York and San Fran and Los Angeles. His art became aspirational.

There were, of course, downsides. Especially in his native Finland in the immediate post-WWII era, his drawings were considered pornographic; being labeled gay could result in prison and definitely financial ruin. The movie suggests that if he hadn’t caught on with the Castro culture, and visited the West Coast, he may have languished in relative obscurity, his work more underground than it still is. (Now, his drawings are considered “art,” and sold in expensive Taschen collections at tony bookstores for big bucks.)

Tom of Finland covers all of that. Director Dome Karukoski unflinchingly (but not salaciously) shows Tom’s “shameful” obsession with hooking up, his risky behavior in a pre-AIDS world, his eye-opening discovery that he is not alone. And he lets Pekka Strang carry much of the weight fearlessly, while giving members of the supporting cast (including Niklas Hogner, a dead-ringer for Tom’s “Kake” character, who appears as a kind of muse) moments to shine. Any film that ends at the International Mr. Leather convention is one that has no problem shooting the finger at tongue-clucking Puritans and homophobic ostriches who prefer to keep their heads in the dirt before acknowledging the complex if lurid pageant of mankind’s sexual history. (More proof of its bona fides? This is Finland’s official entry for best foreign language film at next year’s Oscars.)

Like the artist himself, Tom of Finland doesn’t play things safe, but documents an historic and resonant cultural touchstone. It also extends the galaxy of queer cinema into its own realm and answers that age-old question, “Who’s your daddy?” Why, Tom of Finland, of course.